07/06/15

CORRECTION: Fact Checking Tales Of The Media

fact-check

When I started my days as a reporter at a small town newspaper 10 years ago I learned first hand, and very early on, the sting from writing something in error. A PR person for a construction organization contacted me about a large job fair where companies would be seeking workers. Employment in town was a hot issue so I agreed to write about the program, hoping to get folks who needed a job, out to the event and find working opportunities. The story was pretty basic and ended with logistics of the event, the usual who, what, when, where, why. So what was factually wrong?

I messed up one number. The date.

The PR person called me and said there was a line out the door of the building a whole day early.

Ouch. I was embarrassed and insanely mad at myself. We had copy editors and editors but, in the end, it was my fault.

And in today’s media landscape, with fast online reporting, the fact checking business has gotten sticky. We all see it. Everyone is chomping at the bit to break news and, sometimes, without making sure they have the facts down right and, other times, not knowing if the story is even true. Small town reporters like me did it and big timers do it, too.

Last week, a New York Times Pulitzer-winning reporter, wrote a piece about Dylann Roof, the man accused of murdering nine people in a Charleston, S.C. church. She was contacted by a Facebook “friend” who told her that Roof was a fan of ‘My Little Pony’ and interested in 9/11 memes. According to this interview, a 16-year-old who didn’t know Roof planted the false information with the reporter to prove a point:

I solely wanted to highlight the fault in modern-day reporting over the Internet. There is no other reason behind it. As explained above, mounting pressure evidently causes mistakes. My aim is to result in a change in that factor, to reduce the stress placed on reporters which will hopefully reduce the amount of mistakes and ‘slipped stories’ from being placed. A golden rule for me, in terms of reporting on events, is to fact-check extensively. If there aren’t facts, don’t publish. If there aren’t enough facts, don’t publish. You only consider publishing when you’re at least 80% sure of the content you’re posting, and even then, you admit that this isn’t confirmed information.

The reporter, Frances Robles, is feeling the sting, too (although I’m sure hers has to hurt much more).

“I embarrassed the paper and I embarrassed myself,” she said. “I feel devastated, I felt horrible, and then I felt horrible for wallowing when nine people died because they were black. #getoveryourself.”

We read these types of stories every now and then and cringe at the idea of it. But it’s a good reminder to fact check everything you publish, whether that’s a news story, even a brief, or a press release. There are extremes to this type of story and no matter how big or small, it always burns when you wish you could take those false words back.